"Distorted commoning" in capitalist labor space

From an interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides in e-flux.

Massimo De Angelis: The factory for Marx was a twofold space: it was the space of capitalist exploitation and discipline — this could of course also be the office, the school, or the university — but it was also the space in which social cooperation of labor occurred without the immediate mediation of money. Within the factory we have a non-commoditized space, which would fit our definition of the commons as the space of the “shared” at a very general level.

An Architektur: Why non-commoditized?

Massimo De Angelis: Because when I work in a capitalist enterprise, I may get a wage in exchange for my labor power, but in the moment of production I do not participate in any monetary transactions. If I need a tool, I ask you to pass me one. If I need a piece of information, I do not have to pay a copyright. In the factory—that we are using here as a metaphor for the place of capitalist production—we may produce commodities, but not by means of commodities, since goods stopped being commodities in the very moment they became inputs in the production process. I refer here to the classical Marxian distinction between labor power and labor. In the factory, labor power is sold as a commodity, and after the production process, products are sold. In the very moment of production, however, it is only labor that counts, and labor as a social process is a form of “commoning.” Of course, this happens within particular social relations of exploitation, so maybe we should not use the same word, commoning, so as not to confuse it with the commoning made by people “taking things into their own hands.” So, we perhaps should call it “distorted commoning,” where the measure of distortion is directly proportional to the degree of the subordination of commoning to social measures coming from outside the commoning, the one given by management, by the requirement of the market, etc. In spite of its distortions, I think, it is important to consider what goes on inside the factory as also a form of commoning. This is an important distinction that refers to the question of how capital uses the commons. I am making this point because the key issue is not really how we conceive of commoning within the spheres of commons, but how we reclaim the commons of our production that are distorted through the imposition of capital’s measure of things….

Stavros Stavrides: This topic of the non-commodified space within capitalist production is linked to the idea of immaterial labor, theorized, among others, by Negri and Hardt…. Negri and Hardt argue that with the emergence of immaterial labor — which is based on communicating and exchanging knowledge, not on commodified assets in the general sense, but rather on a practice of sharing — we have a strange new situation: the change in the capitalist production from material to immaterial labor provides the opportunity to think about commons that are produced in the system but can be extracted and potentially turned against the system. We can take the notion of immaterial labor as an example of a possible future beyond capitalism, where the conditions of labor produce opportunities for understanding what it means to work in common but also to produce commons.

Of course there are always attempts to control and enclose this sharing of knowledge, for example the enclosure acts aimed at controlling the internet, this huge machine of sharing knowledge and information. I do not want to overly praise the internet, but this spread of information to a certain degree always contains the seed of a different commoning against capitalism. There is always both, the enclosures, but also the opening of new possibilities of resistance. This idea is closely connected to those expressed in the anti-capitalist movement claiming that there is always the possibility of finding within the system the very means through which you can challenge it. Resistance is not about an absolute externality or the utopia of a good society. It is about becoming aware of opportunities occurring within the capitalist system and trying to turn them against it.

The idea of non-commodified space is interesting, especially in the heart of the factory, where valorization is presumed to occur — valorization may happen only in these noncommodfied zones, for as long as they can be maintained, where effort is made voluntarily and cooperation is its own potential reward for workers, even as the fruits of that cooperation gets reified into products. The social-networking space presents itself as such a place, with the labor appearing as cooperation among those “laboring” on Facebook, and the fruits of that effort being made into saleable commodities behind their backs, or out of their view.

But at the same time, the experience of collaboration online does not necessarily build an awareness of commons; it also encourages a sense of fundamental isolation and the instrumentality with which relationships with others can be used. The production and dissemenation of information online — is it the production of commodities from commodities (cultural commodities, reified meanings), or is noncommodfiied production, the production of new ideas from common intellectual resources? Branding, as it becomes a ubiquitous metaphor for social practices, encourages the commodification of ideas and meanings as reified brands, as logos, as design-y implementations and so on. This thwarts the ideal of immaterial labor as liberating form of sharing, turning it instead into an invidious search for personal advantage.

Resistance doesn’t happen automatically with the freed-up distribution of information; resistance must be a conscious disposition, a strategic deployment of newly common resources against the inertia that directs people toward capitalist impulses of seeking profit and transforming identity into a brand.

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